I sometimes think I was born reading…I can’t remember the time when I didn’t have a book in my hands, my head lost to the world around me.
In Vivian Gornick’s new book, Unfinished Business, she brings us a celebration of passionate reading, of returning again and again to the books that have shaped crucial points in her life. In nine essays that traverse literary criticism, memoir, and biography, one of our most celebrated critics writes about the importance of reading and rereading as life progresses. She finds herself in contradictory characters in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, assesses womanhood in Colette’s The Vagabond and The Chapel, and considers the verity of memory in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, to name a few. Here, she joins New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz to discuss Gornick’s path as a writer, how she decides which books to reread, and the #MeToo movement.
Alexandra Schwartz: Vivian and I sat down a few weeks ago for a much longer conversation, and I was feeling a little self-conscious that we might repeat it. And then I realized that this whole event is about rereading, and I felt fine. Reassured.
Vivian, I was looking again at The Odd Woman and the City, and on the first page of that book, you ask your friend, who you called Leonard, “How does your life feel to you these days?” So, Vivian, how does your life feel to you these days?
Vivian Gornick: Not like his does. I don’t think anyone remembers that in the line that followed he replied, “Like a chicken bone stuck in my craw, I can’t swallow and I can’t spit it out.” But I’m not going to say that. Feels okay. Feels good. Above all, I’m grateful that I stayed with it, over all these years, and I just kept on working. That’s essentially how I feel right now, that I’m grateful that I was able to go on doing the work all this time.
Schwartz: Is that a feeling that’s different than with previous books? Is that something that’s only coming through now?
Gornick: Yes, that’s right; it is, it was. And that’s hard to explain exactly, but I’m sure every writer under the sun feels this. A lot of years have passed since I started writing—many, many—and I’m in a position now to look back at a significant number of years, and to be grateful to see that I just kept on working. And I think every writer feels this way if you live long enough and you survive in your head long enough. It’s a privileged life, it really is, no matter what. The only thing that, in the end, is going to stand you a good stead is your mind. Writing lets you go on thinking, and it’s the only thing that in the end will matter. And so I’m glad that I’m in a position to take advantage of that.
Writing lets you go on thinking, and it’s the only thing that in the end will matter.
Schwartz: The title of this book—one thing that strikes me about it is the word “chronic.” Chronic is an extreme recurring condition, chronic is . . . it’s a common word, but it’s still a rather striking word. I mean, what is with this chronic rereading? When did this condition come to you? When were you afflicted?
Gornick: Lots of times, when people speak of books that are currently being published, they’ll ask, “Have you read . . . ” And I always say, “No, I haven’t read,” and usually it’s because I’m rereading something else, and those are my great pleasures. I rarely read very contemporary writing until it’s recommended by sixteen trusted people, or I’m being paid to review. Otherwise, it’s much my preference to read what I’ve read before. And for the reasons that the book, I hope, exemplifies.
Schwartz: Tell us a little bit about how you decided which books to reread. Were you just following your pleasure? Were there ideas that you knew you wanted to address already from the start?
Gornick: No. The first piece, though, is Sons and Lovers, and I did know definitely that I wanted to do that. Because Sons and Lovers, as I say in the book, is the first book in which I knew as a young woman that I was reading literature. I was twenty years old at City College, and the great thing about City College was not that the teachers were great, but that they put the books in our hands. We were considered the last of the proletarian Harvard. And indeed that’s what we were. Everybody was hungry to read and talk and think, a lot more than the teachers were. They just let us do it. So, the teacher put Sons and Lovers in my hand, and I went home, and I thought, “I’ve been reading literature all my life without knowing it.” Once I knew that, though, once you became conscious, you became another kind of reader. And I read that book three times between twenty and thirty-five. And each time, obviously, I was reading another book.
That was my first great memory of the first book that I knew was important. So, once I wrote that and came to the conclusion in it, as you can see in Unfinished Business, that Sons and Lovers was not really about erotic passion being the central experience of life—which is what Lawrence is famous for—I realized that I had another take on it. But it took me all these years to get that other take. That loomed very large, and then it seemed somehow intuitively normal to go from him to Colette; I don’t really know why. But afterwards it’s obvious, right? The three writers who begin this book are old writers with whom, for me as a reader—how do I put this? The outing of the falsity of erotic passion is at the heart of all these writers. And that was Lawrence, Colette, and Marguerite Duras. Those three you can see are a triad. And that’s the way it went through the whole thing. I just went by instinct. Whatever seemed transitionally right was how I did it. Nothing else.
Schwartz: What were the greatest satisfactions and what were the biggest letdowns of the rereading experience this time around? Who did you love when you came back to, and who just seemed to fall flat?
Gornick: Who I loved the most was whom I loved steadily through it all. And that’s Natalia Ginzburg. And the reason I love her is because she is a mentor to me. She was the writer who taught me that I could become the writer I had it in me to be. So, reading her, she never failed. Each time I read, I saw more in her.
Colette was the one who fell flat. When I was twenty-three years old, Colette was the world to me and my friends. She made a woman in love like war and peace, god and man—she was that important to all of us. And this was fifty years ago, more. Reading her, I felt like I was reading the world. When I read her much later in life, I just had to say to myself, what young woman at twenty-three today can read Colette as I read her? The answer is self-evident. Nobody can. Because she made of a woman in love an extraordinary metaphor, and it just doesn’t read like that anymore. There are other things it reads. I saw this time around real anomie behind her concentration on the erotic experience, real emotional disconnect, real cultural disconnect, and I made the most I could out of that. She was interesting. It fell flat but at the same time it was worth looking into again.
Schwartz: We talked about Colette before, and I happen to agree with this, much to my regret. I always thought something was missing, some spark was missing. But you’re talking about metaphor, erotic love as a metaphor. And you’ve written quite a lot about erotic love as a metaphor that no longer holds real metaphorical weight. I hope you can explain, because surely you can better than I can.
Gornick: Oh, I’m sure everybody knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Schwartz: Well, why don’t you say it anyway?
Gornick: Well, are you serious?
Schwartz: Yeah, I’m serious! Because I have a follow-up question! And also, you can’t trick me with the “oh, everyone knows.”
Gornick: Well, I first said this in an essay called “The End of the Novel of Love,” in a book that grew out of that phrase, actually. I’ll just rehearse for you how I came to write that piece. I was reading a novella by Jane Smiley, a writer whom I respect and like, and who has a lot of virtues as a writer. She’s very gifted, she’s intelligent, she’s serious, et cetera. She wrote this little book called The Age of Grief. It’s about a couple who are in their mid-thirties—they have three children, they both have a profession, and their marriage feels dead. And they both feel that this is the age of grief, meaning this is the moment they realize life is not going to be any bigger than it is at this moment. The wife then falls into an affair. Smiley sets it up so the affair becomes a hope on the part of the wife that she will have a new life, and that she will somehow, by magic, recover everything that has been lost to her. More than that—she will find what she never found before. I don’t have to go on with the rest of it, that’s the premise of the story. And I’m reading this thing and thinking, “She’s got it wrong.” She thinks if she gives up David for Jerry that things are going to change. But I don’t think so. And I think she doesn’t know that, that the age of grief will not be overturned with a new love affair, with a new marriage. That is not what’s going to happen to her.
So, I wrote this saying out loud, on the page, and to myself, this is a Tolstoyan situation, this situation that she presents. Yet in her hands—and she is a talented writer, and a serious writer—at this moment, this is a small good thing. It cannot be a great novel. It’s just not a metaphor that can bear. Because we all have too much experience now. The readerships of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century were all—you know, my parents—they were all people without direct experience. I remember when I was a kid, and much older than a kid, women always saying of some unhappy woman’s marriage, “She married the wrong man, she found the wrong guy.” Then things loosened up and you saw that that woman left her husband. And she fell in love again. And this time around, it didn’t work, either. I say, “All right, she still got the wrong guy. Need another guy.” So then the third guy is . . . and then they have experience. Then one knows it’s not the man who’s going to determine the depth at which you live a life. I realized love is a metaphor that can’t work anymore. A hundred years ago it did, and even when Colette was writing, it certainly did. She wrote The Vagabond in 1910; Andre Gide wrote her a note saying, “This is a perfect novel, I have nothing to say.” He said, this is a perfect novel. He would not say that today; nobody would.
Schwartz: Do you think that there’s another metaphor that is coming to literature to replace love in that way?
Gornick: No, I don’t. It was god, it was nature, it was love. No. I don’t know, you tell me—I don’t see it anywhere. I think we’re lost.
Schwartz: I was thinking, I don’t know what the next one would be, and this is very distressing. I don’t know if it’s so easy. You’re saying that the scales have fallen from our eyes, and we basically see brute experience as what it is; we can’t avail ourselves of a metaphor to give ourselves hope, in a way, that there’s something beyond.
Gornick: The great metaphors that produce great literature are what make the books that give you hope. And the hope is of understanding yourself better. That’s always what the hope is, self-understanding. Whatever the words were, whatever the phrases were, any different periods of time in life, that’s always the hope. That’s what it’s all aimed at. That you should read a book which gives you back the taste of your own time; that you can identify yourself in that time; and understand both yourself and the time better. When Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, or Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, they believed that. Therefore those books carried the weight of that ability to believe in those times, that to engage with erotic passion is to discover oneself, one’s time, everything. And most of it turned on the lack of experience, on the lack of actuality. It will always remain a fantasy. Anyway, that’s my take on it. I don’t know what comes next either. I’ve just enjoyed being able to say, “it’s all over.”
Schwartz: Well, not all of us have that luxury. We don’t need to get into it here, but I almost wonder if the next frontier is the re-veiling of what was previously unveiled. I don’t know if you’ve read Sally Rooney’s books—
Gornick: No, I haven’t.
Schwartz: I actually wonder what you’d think of them—
Gornick: Well, I hear just good things.
Schwartz: They’re wonderful, but I think one thing that goes on in them is you’re dealing with disillusioned young people who definitely don’t believe that love is a metaphor anymore, who find themselves in situations of erotic passion that do open something in life to them. And that surprise is exactly what goes on.
Anyway, going back to rereading. Rereading yourself—is this something that you enjoy doing, or do at all?
Gornick: What exactly do you mean by that?
Schwartz: Rereading your own books.
Gornick: Rereading my own books? Oh, no, I never do that. I never have done that. Maybe I should.
Schwartz: Have you reread Fierce Attachments?
Gornick: Why should I? No, I never have. I’ve reread parts of it because I had to, and I do have to say, I can’t believe I wrote it. I look at it and say, “Did I write this? That’s amazing, I don’t think I could do this again.”
Schwartz: Why not? What do you mean?
Gornick: It seems so good. Well, actually, what I really mean is that I look at it and I’m amazed at how full my grasp of the experience was. That’s it, essentially. And that fullness which, truth to tell, I’ve never experienced again as much as with that book. I felt I stood in the middle of the experience and I looked around and I knew it all. I couldn’t be faulted, no matter what I wrote. And I’ve never had that experience since. I look at it, and I see that is what gives texture to a book, no question about it.
I wrote recently a review of a biography that will be familiar to everybody here, it’s the biography of Susan Sontag by Benjamin Moser. I thought that the book was not a remarkable biography, and the reason it was not a remarkable biography was he did not have that experience. I felt he did not love her, or, in other words, love the experience of living within her purview. And I realized that that is what I think is the first requirement of writing a really great biography. There is a biography that I do think is great, and that is—there are many, of course, but another that’s in the same realm is written by Blake Bailey. Now, the book he wrote about Richard Yates is remarkable, and that’s because he loves a completely unlovable man, totally. Totally. So that he digs deep, and he gives you the depth of a life, and without that, there’s no . . . I speak of this because I’m a nonfiction writer, so I look for those ways in which this kind of thing works in nonfiction, and that is the depth at which you are connected to the experience.
Schwartz: It’s interesting because you’re talking about people writing about other lives. But in looking at your own life, it can be hard to feel unreserved love for your own life, at least.
Gornick: Well, with Fierce Attachments it was easy, because I had mama. In other words, the book was not really about me, it was about our attachment. And it was to that that I became glued. But yes, writing about yourself alone in the act of, one way or another, increasing self-understanding, is very difficult.
Schwartz: How did your mother feel about the book?
Gornick: My nieces are here, and they’re holding their hands over their faces because she’s their grandmother. They remember her well. How did she act—all right. She was like a baby. She was a child, she was a volatile old lady who was very childish. First she calls me up, she read thirty pages and she calls me up and says, “Already I see you said something not true.” So I said, “Keep reading,” and she did keep reading, then another thirty pages and she calls me up again with something similar. So, I said, “Look, just finish the book and come and we’ll talk.” And she came, she’d finished it, and she said, “I see you have told the truth.” Marvelous, right? And “I never realized how influential I was in your life.” A week later, she calls and she says, “You’ve held me up to ridicule; now the whole world knows you hate me,” and it went on like that.
But I have to say, the book achieved a lot of celebrity, and my mother got into it, and she began walking around New York signing it. So I said, “Ma, you can’t do this, you didn’t write the book.” She says, “Well without me, you don’t have a book.” I couldn’t argue that point. So she was volatile, childish, and it reinforced my belief that if you are using anybody as a model, you have to ignore them completely. Because what would I have had if I’d listened to her? Nothing.
Schwartz: You have to be willing to violate that bond, or else you do whatever you want with it.
Gornick: I know a novelist who says she writes as though everyone is dead. And she’s writing about her family all the time. But she wouldn’t be able to do it. This is an old story, it’s not news to anybody. Once you decide that it’s your experience and you’re a writer and you are going to form that experience as you must, all bets are off with other people. It’s just the way it is. Perhaps you’re made differently, or you’re made oddly. And I’ve had thousands of students over the years who’ve said, “How do you do it?” And I say, “Well, if you have to ask that question, you can’t do it; just forget it!” Just forget it, there’s no good answer to this. You do what’s more compelling. Right?
Schwartz: Yeah, I think so. I tweeted something like a year ago that lightly mentioned my father as a comic character, and my father called me immediately and said, “You know, friends of mine follow you—your feed, they’ll see it.” And I said, okay. And he said, “But if you want to put me in a book, it will be fine; I’ll make my peace with it.” I don’t know if anyone’s ready for this, to be on the other end.
Gornick: Nobody ever is. Nobody, ever. And no one will ever see themselves as you see them, no matter who the “you” is and no matter who they are.
No one will ever see themselves as you see them, no matter who the “you” is and no matter who they are.
Schwartz: Talking about becoming a writer—you were formed in a lot of ways at The Village Voice, and you tell a great story about it in Unfinished Business which I absolutely love. I think you were at a talk downtown—do you want to tell the story?
Gornick: The Village Vanguard story?
Schwartz: Yeah, which you then took to the Voice.
Gornick: It’s how I started to work. I was in my late twenties, it was the late sixties at the Village Vanguard Jazz Club, which was certainly going then. There were Monday night speak-outs. One night was called Art and Politics, and the people who were speaking were LeRoi Jones, who became Amiri Baraka, and the painter Larry Rivers, and I think it was a trumpeter, Archie Shepp, or a saxophone player. These three men got up there to speak about art and politics. The place was jammed to the gills with people like me, and people older, and people who had been much more active in civil rights. And these guys got up there, and especially Jones, he announced—you know, politics ruled the day, art went out the window in two seconds, it was all politics—and he said, “You ofays, you ofays have fucked the whole thing up. When we get there, we’re going to do it differently.” And then he said we were sitting in the seats of the theater of revolution, and guess who was going to get it first? The people who were sitting there. But above all, he said, “When we get there, we’re going to do it differently.” The whole place erupted, everybody was yelling and screaming, and most of these people were civil rights workers, and they’d been everywhere and done everything. And people were yelling, “I’ve paid my dues, you know I’ve paid my dues,” and everyone was just carrying on. And I wanted to say, “You have something confused here. You have confused class and race, in my view.” But I was terrified of him. He was very frightening; he had a fierce personality, and it seemed threatening.
So, I went home to my little apartment in Greenwich Village right around the corner, and I had, I think, an early electric timer. I sat up all night and wrote this piece in which I essentially said there was no there there, and they couldn’t get there without becoming us, and that was the great confusion of the time. Then I just sent it over the transom to The Village Voice. And a couple of days later, my phone rang, and—this is starting to sound like a Cinderella story—my phone rang, and it was Dan Wolf, who was the editor of the Voice, and he said, “Who the hell are you?” And I said, “I don’t know, you tell me.” Then he said, “Well, whatever you write, send it to us.” That was magic. And the next time I sent anything to him was almost a year later. Then for the next few years I sent them one piece a year, and then finally I came back to New York—I’d been living away—and I went to him for a job. And he said to me, “You’re a neurotic Jewish girl; you can only produce one piece a year. How can I give you a job?” And I said, no, now I’ll do anything. And I did.
Schwartz: So, he cured you of your neuroses, like that.
Gornick: No, but he certainly furthered me along in the direction of finding it.
Schwartz: Yeah, I mean, having to file copy will cure you of the neuroses.
Gornick: Absolutely. As you know, certainly better than I do.
Schwartz: Well, I like this story for a number of reasons . . .
Gornick: Yeah, deadline was everything. It was really a great boon for me.
Schwartz: I don’t know if you know this, but the Voice has put up some of your pieces online.
Gornick: No, I didn’t.
Schwartz: They’ve just done it.
Gornick: Which ones?
Schwartz: Well, I have a paragraph from one that I would like to read, unless you really don’t want that to happen. There’s the piece that you wrote, which I think is the first piece you wrote about the radical feminists, from November 1969. That’s one piece that I want to read a paragraph from, if I may. They also have a piece of yours that I thought was very interesting with your own point of view about camp, where you say that Susan Sontag is wrong.
Gornick: Which I paid for, yeah. A lot of people were very angry.
Schwartz: You said she was wrong in the nicest way possible. You said the brilliant Susan Sontag wrote this wonderful essay which happens to be wrong.
Gornick: Right, but that’s not what you want to read.
Schwartz: No, that’s not what I want to read. Okay, there are two things I want to read, actually. I won’t take too much time with this. The other one—or we can choose. The other one is “Toward a Definition of the Female Sensibility,” which I thought was really interesting and maybe more applicable to our conversation. But there’s one thing in the women’s lib one that I want to ask you about, and then we’ll get back to the female sensibility. It was November 1969, and you had been sent down to the Village to cover women in the women’s movement. At the end of the piece—first of all, you called it totally right, you said this is the next huge movement, this is the thing. I mean, the title of the piece is “Women’s Liberation: The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs.” The “theirs” is interesting—first of all, that it’s not “ours,” and I don’t know if at that point you were totally feeling that you were part of it, though it certainly sounds like you do.
Gornick: Well, I did and I didn’t, you’re absolutely right to hit on that. “Theirs” and “ours” is very different. After that, it was “ours,” very quickly. But at that moment I really didn’t know what exactly I was making of it all. And it was like a great panorama going on at a distance from me. There’s an analogy here with Hannah Arendt. Throughout the Second World War, she always wrote of Jews, and the situation, as “we.” Once Israel was declared a state, she was against the state, and she said “they.” So, she went that way, but I went the other way. It’s very telling. De Beauvoir, she wrote The Second Sex—it’s all “they.” She was terrible; she would not associate herself to what she really deeply did associate herself to. But it’s a very important thing to see that, how awesome it felt to say “we” in any of these situations. To say “we” means that you really take it in, and it becomes part of you, and it is you. And that’s how I felt with feminism, but not with the first piece I wrote.
Schwartz: The first piece you wrote, one can almost see you in the piece discovering that this is exactly how you feel, and you’re laying down your ideas as fact, which they are, basically—that men and women are socialized differently, and that these differences are hugely consequential. But what I want to read you is the very last paragraph of the piece, at which point you’d been talking about Shulamith Firestone, and the group that she’s starting. You say: “I mention these two in particular, but at this moment in New York, in Cambridge, in Chicago, in New Haven, in Washington, in San Francisco, in East Podunk—yes! Believe it!—there are dozens like them preparing to do the same thing. They are gathering fire and I do believe the next great moment in history is theirs. God knows, for my unborn daughter’s sake, I hope so.”
Gornick: Ah, how thrilling.
Schwartz: I find it very interesting that you were writing about your unborn daughter.
Gornick: That was a big mistake, because then someone went away and wrote about my daughter. Vivian Gornick and her baby, or her daughter. Yes, somebody wrote some crazy thing. It wasn’t well said. I meant it, the way that a politico would say that—“In the name of my unborn children,” as any politician from time immemorial has said.
Schwartz: So, you were ending on a stump speech note, almost.
Gornick: Oh, absolutely.
Schwartz: But were you thinking in your head, I may have a daughter, and I want her to grow up in this world?
Gornick: No. I never thought about my children.
Schwartz: It was purely rhetorical.
Gornick: Such a popular position. Well, yes. I was stirred by the idea of everybody’s unborn children, but not mine in particular.
Schwartz: You were your own unborn child.
Gornick: That’s right, yes. I was my own unborn child.
Schwartz: I encourage everyone to go out and find these pieces. And if you’re going to do some rereading, you should. I think they’re very proud of you.
Gornick: Well, be my guest. I often do read many of these pieces and there are many that I cringe at. The rhetoric is, like, up to the hairline. I read these pieces and all that really leaps out at me is, “and beyond question,” “and without a doubt”—everything with me was without a doubt, beyond question. And a lot of other terrible rhetorical tics that made the writing less than durable to me.
Schwartz: In this other piece about female sentience—I don’t need to read the paragraph from it, but it’s an idea that a lot of writers have written about and thought about, and you have Virginia Woolf in your piece, and so on and so forth, asking what it means to have a male sensibility or female sensibility. And what you’re basically saying in that piece is that you feel that the women writers who are confronting feminism, and confronting the imprisonment that feminism is trying to break, are the ones who are going to be aesthetically successful. And the ones who can’t go right up to that place are not. And I was wondering—I mean, it may not make sense without me reading this, though I think it kind of does—you say at the end that a new female sensibility needs to grow, one that will “become a reflection of and a guide to the true politicalness of contemporary feminism: the recapture of the lost, experiencing self.” Are there writers who have done that for you? Who have captured that sensibility that you were trying to find in 1973?
Gornick: Well, I wouldn’t name writers in particular, but I would certainly say it became a powerful influence in changing culture. I don’t know so much about whether or not we’ve produced art, or lasting literature, but we’ve certainly produced a lasting cultural take. And I say it to this day—that is a political stump thing, I mean those were years when people like me—more than many others, much more—we did feel that was where our eloquence came from, the narrowness of our vision and the intensity of it. And the belief that we really were revolutionaries and we were standing at the edge of a huge change in the world. And that’s the way it was in the 1970s for our generation. There are plenty here tonight who are still alive, doing it.
But it didn’t work that way, and here we are forty years later with the #MeToo movement consisting of young women who are in a thousand times more of a rage than we were. And they are in that rage because what we predicted just did not take root long enough, fast enough, or enough, period. It was like, not too little too late, but certainly too little. And that rage that they experience startles me. And I know the vigilante politics that comes out of that rage is horrifying, but I know it’s because just not enough has happened, there’s just not been enough change. The most shocking thing for me were the revelations of the workplace. I was so shocked by realizing that men and women in the workplace still treat each other very much as they did when I was young, instrumentally. Not like fellow creatures. And that really shocked me, and hurt. And then that’s when you lose your own sense of ethical activity. I mean, I hate the vigilante politics, and the lack of due process and all the rest of it, and all the men who did not deserve to have their heads cut off in the last two years—but I can’t let it go there. I can’t let it stop there. It’s just too meaningful, and there’s too a good a reason why it’s all happening.
Schwartz: You could look at it slightly differently and say that it is because of some successes in your movement, and in the second wave, and in the years that followed—it is because of rising expectations that #MeToo has come to pass at all. Because part of the rage is a sense of not being treated as equals and being instrumentalized in the workplace, rather than a sense of discovering all this for the first time, you know what I mean? Because this is a movement also that’s being led by people who have gone to college and taken female studies classes, which is not something that—well, it’s incomparable.
Gornick: We were the generation of rising expectations, don’t get that confused. Theirs is not rising expectations. Theirs is disappointment that our rising expectations have not borne more fruit.
Schwartz: Right, you raised the expectations, but that does seem like the change to me. I guess I’m trying in some way to see it more positively, I don’t know. It’d be naive.
Gornick: Well, we are what we are. I no longer feel good or bad. I just watch what happens, and just try to absorb it as is. But I do believe it was because the rising expectations that we raised—they did not push through and become the greater change that we expected. The first change that I really thought would happen was the business of sexual harassment, which was named fifty years ago. I mean, fifty years later, charges of sexual harassment still have so much potency, and that men and women in the workplace still look upon each other as objects of exploitation, and that’s painful. They know better.
Twenty years ago women of forty used to come up to me and say, “You promised me . . .” Women of forty who were then getting married and having babies. And they were discovering their husbands were not changed at all, these boys from Harvard and Yale that they were all marrying. And I said, “What do you mean, we promised? What did we promise that you’re not getting?” And, “My husband sounding like fifty years ago. He doesn’t do anything, he doesn’t know,” et cetera. “Constant bargaining, I’m constantly having to. . . it was okay before we had children, but once we had children,” I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. None of that had changed sufficiently. And that was twenty years ago. Now those women are sixty and the ones who are forty are up there yelling and screaming and trying to pin the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, nail them to the floor.
I think we’ll never go back to where it was before, never, not in anybody’s lifetime. But it’s two steps forward and one step back. It’s just the longest road.
So, that’s how I look upon it. I think we’ll never go back to where it was before, never, not in anybody’s lifetime. But it’s two steps forward and one step back. It’s just the longest road. The fear of equality for women and men is one of the most anxiety-ridden fears that you’ll learn in history. It’s shocking.
Schwartz: We’re going to do one more question. So, we’ll end on an easy note. What are you reading now?
Gornick: Oh, actually, I’m reading the work of Storm Jameson. She is a long-forgotten English writer, born in 1891, died in 1986, almost a hundred years old. She wrote forty-five novels in her time, and they’re all mediocre. And then at the age of seventy, she sat down and wrote a really magnificent memoir, a two-volume memoir. So, the obvious interest lies there, why she could do this, but not that. And why she did do this and not that. And the New York Public Library has about six or seven of her novels, but you can only read them in the library. So, I’ve been spending my days in Room 315, very, very happy, remembering my college days, and loving that room, reading Storm Jameson.
Schwartz: Thank you, Vivian.
Vivian Gornick is the author of several books, including the acclaimed memoir Fierce Attachments, named the best memoir of the past fifty years by The New York Times Book Review in 2019, and the essay collections The End of the Novel of Love and The Men in My Life, both of which were nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. She began her career as a staff writer for The Village Voice in 1969, and her work has since appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and many other publications.
Alexandra Schwartz has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2016. She is also the winner of the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.